This short book is both a parable about power and a wonderful compendium of magical places as enchanting as the late medieval traveler's tales that Calvino has clearly absorbed. The aged dictator Khan sits at the edge of a vast empire that he has never actually toured. The nimble Marco Polo, by contrast, possesses no territory; only the memory of his many travels.
Like Sheherazade recounting her thousand-and-one tales, Polo finds himself in the position of having to recollect for Khan the descriptions of the many cities that he ostensibly possesses. Polo thus becomes the Khan's only source for information about the cities in his territory; hence their 'invisibility.' But the descriptions he gives of the cities seem increasingly fantastic and elaborate. The Khan is skeptical. Polo, for his part, insists that he is being frank.
The question at the center of the book becomes: who possesses these cities? Kublai Khan, or Marco Polo? What are we to make of the possibility that Polo, for all his protestations, is being less than honest with the Khan? In which case, do the cities exist only in the traveler's imagination? If so, is the Khan's empire therefore merely a dream and an invention?
The brevity of each section (1 to 3 pages) and the sensual pleasures Calvino's descriptions provoke makes this book exquisite bed-time reading. In fact, older children would probably also enjoy the beauty of this charming tale.